Neuromyths and Educational Psychology: A Persistent Problem

Educational psychology in teaching practice is a hotly contested issue within education. As personal development is becoming an increasingly important part of being a teacher, research into educational psychology and understanding how children and adolescents best learn is being focused in more prominently. Despite this, there are many false ideas, or neuromyths, about how the brain works in terms of learning. One of the issues with neuromyths is that despite mounting evidence to the contrary, they persist and have become accepted not only within education circles but more broadly. Though falling out of favour, ideas such as humans only using 10% of their brain and learning styles persist to this day. Other theories, such as Dweck’s Growth Mindset, while more empirically valid, are misused and incorrectly applied, in ways which can be detrimental to students’ learning.

Learning Styles

Among the most persistent of these neuromyths is that of learning styles. The learning styles myth is based around the idea that students learn based primarily through a single one of their senses. These are often categorised as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (physical activity based) styles of learning. It is believed, according to this theory, that if students learn in the style most suited to their personal preference, more learning will take place as a result. As of 2012, a staggering 93% of teachers in the United Kingdom still believed in this theory, despite the lack of evidence for it. The learning styles myth can be particularly damaging for students. For example, a student who is struggling with reading but is assumed to be a strong ‘auditory’ learner may be given audiobooks to listen to in lieu of reading a text. Though well-intentioned to help the student understand a text, this denies the student a chance to practice their reading skills. The myth of learning styles also has negative implications for planning and preparing lessons. An adherent to this myth, believing they must present all learning activities and materials in multiple ways regardless of context, increases their workload significantly. It is well-known that there is an alarming problem with teachers being over-worked as it is. Pedagogical practices which mandate significant differentiation, regardless of the teaching context, increase this workload further.

Growth Mindset

Another neuroscience theory with dubious evidence to back it up that is prominent in schools is Growth Mindset, popularised by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s theory posits that there are two mindsets to learning: ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’. According to Dweck, a fixed mindset is one which believes intelligence is static and cannot be changed. A growth mindset, by contrast, is a mindset in which Though there is evidence to support the theory overall, it has not yet been determined whether it applies in the context of educating children and adolescents. A 2016 survey by the Edcuation Week Research Center has shown that 80% of teachers who implement Dweck’s findings do not make effective changes in the classroom. Recent examination of Dweck’s original research has found some key issues with the theory. For one, it has been not been able to be replicated. This fact alone is a salient point when drawing conclusions from this research. If a study is not able to be independently replicated, the validity of its findings is immediately diminished to a significant degree. It is important, therefore, to apply scepticism to theories such as Dweck’s Growth mindset and consider the research behind them before implementing them in the classroom environment.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a further example of a persistent idea in educational psychology which is misused and abused. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory which states there are six levels of thinking. These are remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating. Conventional wisdom surrounding the taxonomy is that there are ‘lower-order’ and ‘higher-order’ levels of thinking. Remembering is often considered to be the lowest, or most basic level, and creating is considered the highest. One of the issues with the way Bloom’s Taxonomy is understood in the modern teaching context is the rigid hierarchical thinking applied to it. The assumption that some forms of knowledge are inherently ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ order is misguided and can be detrimental to learning. In many instances, Blooms’ Taxonomy has become a rigid means of sequencing content from lower to higher order thinking, rather than as a means of assessment, as was originally intended by Benjamin Bloom when he originally devised the theory in 1965. As with the misuse and adherence to the other learning styles and neuromyths mentioned in this article, this has negative implications for lesson planning and pedagogy.

Evidence-based and scientific approaches to education are essential to ensure students are able to learn and teachers able to teach as effectively as possible. As teachers, we must cast a critical eye over neuroscientific ideas and learning theories and ensure there is sound evidence and value in implementing these ideas within the classroom.

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Historical Narratives: Why Storytelling in History matters

In my personal experience, one of the most compelling aspects of history has always been the storytelling aspect of it. While I have always enjoyed the study of history as a means of understanding the world, it is the stories of the past which have truly captured and retained my interest in history as a subject. This aspect of history, however, is often overlooked when teaching the subject in schools. All too often, history as a school subject is associated with a rote recollection of a series of dates, events and persons with little in the way of a compelling reason to remember these beyond a test or exam. Using storytelling and narrative history, particularly with contemporary resources such as historical podcasts like those of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Daniele Bolelli’s History On Fire series can be a way to remedy this issue.

There is ample scientific evidence to back up claims of storytelling and oral recounting being effective from a learning standpoint. The reason why storytelling is so compelling has its roots in evolutionary psychology. Marina Bianchi, in a 2014 research paper entitled The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work argues that the telling of stories arouses an intensely pleasurable sensation both externally and internally. One of the psychological appeals of storytelling, Bianchi argues, is that it presents otherwise unfamiliar information in a familiar format. For students who may otherwise be unfamiliar with a topic such as World War Two or the Ancient Roman Empire, utilising storytelling and narrative forms of history can be a powerful way of making a connection. This can take multiple forms, such as a history book which utilises a narrative format or even through oral transmission to students.

Two examples of historians (although Dan Carlin humbly eschews this label in favour of the more modest ‘fan of history’ label) who are expert at narration and storytelling are the aforementioned Carlin and Daniele Bolelli. Through their critically acclaimed podcasts Hardcore History and History on Fire, they take historical events and figures and bring them to life through vivid narration and gripping storytelling. Despite their podcasts frequently spanning several hours in length, they have nonetheless both amassed large audiences on the strength of their narration. Although they are often referred to as ‘popularisers’ of history, their works are academically rigorous, with months of research going into each episode. One of the best parts of both Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts is that they often raise pointed questions for the listener. Both podcasts are effective in taking historical subject matter and placing it in a contemporary context. These podcasts, while going into extensive detail on their respective subjects, also contain some conjecture and commentary interwoven into the accounts. This conjecture raises interesting questions, which can be utilised to spark discussion among students.

There are of course drawbacks with utilising these or other podcasts in the teaching of history, as is the case with just about any resource. Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts are quite lengthy, so limited excerpts rather than entire podcast episodes series would likely be the way to go when designing activites around their use. It is also important to note, in the case of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, he is not a historian by academic background. Though his research is thorough, there are occasionally gaps and errors in his account, which Carlin himself readily admits. As a result I would caution against utilising his podcasts as a main resource to build a unit of work around. His podcasts are still a great supplementary resource however, especially as an engagement tool for students.

With these factors in mind, the Hardcore History and History On Fire podcast series are well worth considering using in a classroom context. They are accessible, engaging and thought-provoking, combining academic rigour with engaging narration and historical perspectives which are nuanced and also provocative at times. Combined with more traditional teaching materials, I firmly believe Dan Carlin’s and Daniele Bolelli’s history podcasts have a place as a teaching resource in any History classroom.